Unable to agree on military priorities, some defense experts fear, Congress and the services may resort to plundering those budget accounts that yield the handiest deficit reductions--personnel and readiness. Those budgets keep troops busy training, ships steaming and ammunition in the bins, and they are the accounts that could matter most if war should break out.
Wishes Tough to Deny
Such an outcome would fly in the face of Defense Secretary Carlucci's express orders. But the power of the military services, both to initiate budget proposals and to build congressional constituencies for their plans, may make many of their wishes tough to deny.
"The military services have no reason to endure any budgetary pain," said Joseph F. Campbell, a former Office of Management and Budget official who watches the defense budget for Paine Webber. "They'll go about this exercise just as they always have--they'll take away stuff that's just not painful."
Though they represent a fraction of the services' proposed reductions, the "gold watches" and "Washington monuments" are one way to lessen the blow.
Thus, when asked to slice $11.6 billion from its $108.7-billion 1989 budget request, the Navy performed what until last year had become an annual ritual: It included a proposal to cut a Trident missile-carrying submarine from its buying plans next year, at a promised savings of $1.4 billion.
The suggestion is unlikely to be adopted by the White House, which has vowed to modernize the nation's nuclear arsenal and has regularly rejected the Navy's Trident proposal. If the idea somehow got past the White House, congressional defense experts say it would certainly be reinstated by Trident patrons on Capitol Hill.
Similarly, when the Air Force was ordered to find $10.5 billion worth of cuts, its reduction package included $2.3 billion saved by canceling outright the small, single-warhead missile known as Midgetman. "We just can't afford the luxury" of building the new missile, one Air Force official intoned.
But the attachment of several key lawmakers to the Midgetman program is almost certain to make the proposed saving illusory. Congressional heavyweights such as the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), have hailed the single-warhead missile as a weapon that will foster stability in the superpower nuclear balance.
Last month, when a small clutch of congressional critics threatened to cancel the Midgetman, Aspin and Nunn moved swiftly to restore its 1988 funding in an omnibus budget bill.
Offer to Slow Production
For its part, the Army, facing cuts of $9 billion, readily offered to slow the production of its main M-1 battle tank and of Black Hawk helicopters, both slated for key roles in any European conflict. Congress, citing the need to improve the nation's conventional forces, in recent years has consistently directed the Army to increase, not cut back, its procurement of those weapons.
In another move expected to be controversial in Congress, the Air Force is offering to strike 60 F-16 fighters annually from its original blueprint, starting in 1990. But the F-16, at about $13 million apiece the less costly of the service's two front-line fighters, is built in the Fort Worth district of House Speaker Jim Wright, a fierce and powerful protector of hometown defense contractors.
Carlucci has said he would not tolerate such budget ploys, and many of the services' early proposals are being returned with stern warnings to stop playing games, Defense Department officials say. But some measure of gamesmanship is virtually assured, many defense analysts maintain, because of the way Carlucci and Weinberger strengthened the services' hands from the outset of the Reagan Administration.
'Stretching Out" Programs
In addition to proposing cuts in popular or vital programs, the services respond to budget pressures by proposing to stretch out costly procurement plans while leaving unchanged the long-term goals. According to a November study by the Congressional Budget Office, "stretching out" programs generally drives up the price tag of each weapon bought by keeping production lines open longer and producing at less economical rates.
Often, critics like Korb complain, the more costly arsenals are bought with funds that should have been used to keep smaller inventories of weapons manned, maintained and operated at a higher state of readiness.
In the face of severe budgetary pressures, for instance, the Navy has held firmly to its goal of a 600-ship fleet, though analysts believe the service will be unable to man and operate all those ships in the more difficult fiscal times ahead. "Today's reality leads me to conclude that there is no basis to change this Administration's concept of the '600-ship Navy,' " wrote Navy Secretary James H. Webb Jr. in a Dec. 10 memorandum for Carlucci.
There are 35 such major weapons due to enter the costly phase of early production in the next two years, according to the Defense Budget Project's Adams. And, as they do, the services will face a wave of new spending commitments. Only by canceling such programs now can this so-called "bow wave" of spending be averted, he contended.